A Christmas Carol Novel Beat Sheet
Blake Snyder did not invent story beats. He studied movies and storytelling media and codified beats that successful writers began using centuries ago. And he gave them some “snappy” names to help today’s writers remember and use the beats to create stories that resonate. I thought it was interesting that a book written in the 1840s could fit so well into the beats that Blake outlined.
Written by: Charles Dickens
How does A Christmas Carol hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic novel:
Opening Image: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” Without knowing this, or believing it, as Dickens points out, how will anything else that comes after seem wondrous?
Theme Stated: Being a good person is more important than being a good businessman. One’s humanity, their soul, depends on it.
Dickens notes Scrooge’s reaction to the loss of Marley: “And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.” Scrooge isn’t concerned that Marley, his business partner for many years, is dead, as much as he is worried about business itself and getting the good deal.
Set-Up: Scrooge is the sole mourner for Marley, a fate he will someday face, even if he doesn’t know it yet, his Stasis=Death moment.
On Christmas Eve seven years later, Scrooge hoards the coal, leaving his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit, with barely any heat. Scrooge scoffs at his nephew for wishing him, and anyone else, a Merry Christmas. “Bah!”’ said Scrooge, “Humbug!” Not to mention Scrooge’s disdain for the idea of love. He dismisses an invitation to join his nephew and wife for Christmas. What profit is there in merrymaking?
Scrooge turns away two men seeking donations to help the poor and homeless. He weighs the cost of merrymaking, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” He asks about the poorhouses and prisons that his taxes go to. He already pays for something, he’s thinking, and doesn’t want to pay for it again. That isn’t profitable. When told that many would rather die than go to a poorhouse, Scrooge suggests that they had better hurry and do that, “and decrease the surplus population.”
At the end of the day, Scrooge grudgingly agrees to let Cratchit have Christmas off, though it pains him to lose a day’s worth of work.
After a brief premonition with a door knocker, which he shrugs off, we see Scrooge alone in the dark house, “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” making sure it is empty. It is a large house, but he is alone there, just as he is alone wherever he goes.
Catalyst: Marley’s ghost appears, wrapped in chains, even though Scrooge has locked and double locked his doors.
Debate: Is this real? No, Scrooge insists. Couldn’t be. His senses are being fooled. “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Marley rises, shakes his chains and wails, scaring Scrooge to his knees. Marley is there, all right, and has a warning for Scrooge. Even though he can’t see them, Marley says, Scrooge wears a similar set of chains and it will only get worse for him unless he changes.
But, Scrooge reminds him, Marley was always good at business. “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” He warns Scrooge that mankind should be his business, too, before it is too late.
Marley tells Scrooge that he should expect three spirits who will show him the true spirit of Christmas and how that will allow him to escape the same fate of being chained for eternity and left to wander the Earth.
Marley leaves, and Scrooge is more than a little afraid at the idea of more ghosts showing up.
Break into Two: Scrooge wakes up in the dark to the sound of the church bell ringing the hour – midnight. He stays awake to listen for the one o’clock bell. When it rings, light floods his chambers. The first spirit has arrived and Scrooge is about to enter a new world.
B Story: Scrooge and the spirits of Christmas.
Fun and Games: The “fun” of seeing Scrooge shown his wrongs by ghosts is what we want to read about, and Dickens obliges.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is there, and wants to help save him. He goes, though with much complaining, insisting a good night’s rest is what he really needs.
First up is a trip down memory lane for Scrooge, and we see perhaps why he’s not so fond of Christmas. He is often left at the boarding school over the holiday until one year his sister comes to get him, claiming their father has changed, and he is welcome home again.
We also learn that his sister, Fan, had only one child – the nephew Fred he rudely turned out earlier – and Fan died, leaving Fred as his only living relative. Scrooge is more alone than we thought before, and the scars he bears from the loss of his family are a little more visible to us.
We see a young Scrooge at a Christmas party with his first employer, Fezziwig, actually enjoying himself in the festivities. Even the older Scrooge, watching unseen, enjoys the scene. And, for a moment, he feels sorry for how he treated Cratchit earlier. Maybe there is a small piece of humanity in Scrooge.
But then, the ghost shows him another day when he lost the girl he loved, Belle. She tells him she has to leave him because Scrooge saw no profit in their love. Business, then, came before his humanity. The ghost even gives him a glimpse of Belle, years later – married, happy, and with children around her. She chose humanity over profit and is enjoying her life fully.
Scrooge pleads to be taken home. He’s seen enough. His heart is breaking.
Now the Ghost of Christmas Present arrives. “Come in. and know me better, man!” the ghost insists, calling out to Scrooge to get to know the spirit of the holiday.
And, for his part, Scrooge seems ready to accept this idea. “Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it,” Scrooge says, but even then, he is thinking about what’s in it for him – the profit.
They go out into Christmas day to witness the other London residents enjoying the spirit in everything they do and say.
They pay a visit to the Cratchits’ home, where Scrooge sees the poor conditions his bookkeeper lives in and the state of his family. But, they still enjoy Christmas far more than Scrooge, who has all of the wealth that they lack, but none of the joy they possess.
And he sees Tiny Tim, weak and needing a crutch to walk. He sees the love Bob Cratchit has for his son. For the first time, Scrooge seems to care for someone other than himself. “Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” Scrooge, Dickens notes, hangs his head and is overtaken by grief at this idea.
In brief visits, the ghost shows Scrooge other places around the planet where the spirit of Christmas should be absent, but isn’t – miners working, sailors out at sea, in lonely homes out on the moors.
Midpoint: And then to Fred’s home – Scrooge’s only living relative. Scrooge and the ghost arrive at Fred’s house to witness the games and singing of the traditional Christmas gathering of the day. Even as the spirit wants to leave, Scrooge insists they stay for one more game.
He is enjoying the Christmas spirit.
Bad Guys Close In: But the game, “Yes and No,” turns quickly, and Scrooge is the answer to the riddle – an unwanted, disagreeable animal that lives in the city. This, apparently, is what others, even family, think of him.
The Spirit of Christmas Present is fading fast, he only lasts 24 hours, and he removes a saddened Scrooge from the party. They arrive in a graveyard.
The ghost has one more trick up his robes – a pair of figures: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.” Beware of both, he warns Scrooge, but especially Ignorance. “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” This reminds Scrooge of his own callousness, his own inhumanity towards others.
All Is Lost: The ghost leaves Scrooge in the graveyard, not even returning him to his chambers. He is lost. Alone. He knows now how distasteful he is, even to his own family.
Dark Night of the Soul: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrives. Scrooge is humble, ready to learn this final lesson.
In quick succession, they visit:
A group of businessmen talking about a dead colleague. They might go to the funeral – if lunch is provided. But finally decide that they don’t want the bother of going, even if there is food.
A group of thieves selling items stolen from the dead man’s apartment, even while the corpse was still warm. They delight in knowing that it is likely that they alone will profit from his death.
Now to the death chamber itself, where “there lay a something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language.” The man’s body. There is a total lack of humanity in all of this – no one mourns the man. No one seems to have taken care of the body. Only his stuff has been taken, for a profit.
Break into Three: Scrooge is scared out of his wits. Who is the dead man? Perhaps he has an idea, but is unwilling to say anything yet. Instead, he begs the final ghost “If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death,” said Scrooge quite agonized, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!”
Finale: The ghost complies, but perhaps not as Scrooge had meant.
A young couple at their home: The husband returns with news. It’s bad, he says. She feels it is hopeless. The man will foreclose on their home. He will not relent. “He is past relenting. He is dead,” the husband says. But in this news is a silver lining, the husband points out. It will take time to transfer the debt to another creditor. And, in that time, they will be able to get the money and keep their home. There is, then, some happiness in the man’s death.
And then, the final nail in the coffin for Scrooge, a visit to a very somber Cratchit home, where there is an unattended crutch in the corner.
The ghost returns him to the cemetery.
Scrooge is mortified. This, he reasons, is what will become of him if he does not change. He sees that now. But it’s not too late, he hopes. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” Scrooge exclaims.
The ghost forces Scrooge to look upon the man’s gravestone – which bears Scrooge’s name. Is it too late?
Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning a new man, scared by the ghosts into finding his humanity. He sends a boy off to fetch the biggest turkey and has it sent, anonymously, to the Cratchits.
He makes a sizable donation to the two men helping the poor. Attends church. He goes to dinner with Fred and his family, begging for forgiveness and spends the evening singing, dancing, and playing games. He is full of Christmas spirit now.
Final Image: Scrooge waits for Cratchit to arrive at work the day after Christmas. He comes in late, apologizing for too much merrymaking the day before, and expecting to be fired.
Scrooge scares his bookkeeper into thinking he has gone crazy with his earnestness in wishing Bob a Merry Christmas. But Scrooge is sincere, and tells Cratchit he will raise his salary and take care of his family. He finishes by admonishing Cratchit to put some more coal in the stove, unconcerned about the cost.
Scrooge has come to realize that his humanity is far more important than profit. And the change, as Dickens promised in the Opening Image, is wondrous.
Thanks, Cora! Glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks, Big Guy,
Great information. Looking forward to your next work.
My pleasure! Glad you found it useful.
- Forrest Knutson
Love it! Thanks for the perfect Christmas Beatsheet!
Thank you, Forrest! I always enjoy revisiting this story.
- Andrew Fuller
Great analysis of my all-time favourite story. Oh, & Merry Christmas!
Always one of my favorite, too. Merry Christmas! (And no humbugs!)
- CYNTHIA MCCLENDON
This is one of my favorite stories. Just curious – why is this MITH instead of Out of the Bottle?
- Sean Carlin
It is OOTB (“Surreal Bottle”), Cynthia, same as The Family Man and It’s a Wonderful Life. The central dramatic question of a MITH narrative is Will the monster be vanquished? The supernatural entities in A Christmas Carol are trying to help, not hurt, the protagonist by teaching him a lesson by way of a magical “spell.” As soon as Scrooge learns his lesson, the spell is broken and the spirits no longer haunt him, which is not how at all how MITH works.
My initial thought was based around the three points of the MITH: the sin, monster(s), and the idea of being trapped; and was, unfortunately, part of my earlier drafts that didn’t get changed.
It can, as you point out, be better argued as OOTB – and Sean did a great job of doing just that.
Thank you to both of you for catching that and for your comments. Constructive criticism always makes what we write better.
- Tom Reed
Well done, Guy Thompson, for an informative and accurate BS2. And well done also, Sean Carlin, for the genre correction. For those who love Dickens and this story in particular, I share two links that reflect further upon the story from our distinct vantage point of December 2017.
This is so great and really helpful for getting my mind around beats in a way that easily transfers to my novel. Thank you!
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Thanks, Guy. I appreciated your analysis of what is probably the most beloved short story ever written.